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Joint Chiefs Back Clinton Policy on Homosexuals in Military

By Martin Kasindorf
Newsday

WASHINGTON

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose original opposition led President Clinton to compromise on a pledge to let avowed homosexuals serve in uniform, came through for their commander-in-chief with close-combat support at a crucial Senate hearing Tuesday.

Enthusiastically led by Army Gen. Colin Powell, the retiring Joint Chiefs chairman, the six service commanders joined Defense Secretary Les Aspin in backing Monday's "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue'' easing of the Pentagon's 50-year-old gay exclusion policy.

"The chiefs do not believe they have been shotgunned into this policy just because we're good soldiers,'' Powell told Sen. Robert Smith, R-N.H., one of several conservatives who favored enacting the strict ban into law and who termed the new policy vague and threatening to military readiness.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga., faced with the solid military front, said he welcomed language in the White House-approved directive that met his demands, and held off on sponsoring separate legislation that would give the old ban the force of law.

But Nunn, ignoring pleas by Aspin and Sen. Charles Robb, D-Va., to let the Pentagon keep handling the issue by administrative regulation, remained set on enacting a tough policy in statute.

"Congress will vote on this issue one way or the other,'' Nunn said, voicing a hope that testimony will enable the committee to draw up legislation later this week "consistent with the policy announced by the president.''

Polled repeatedly for their private views by six senators, the four generals and two admirals left no politically exploitable gap between themselves and Clinton.

Asked by Sen. John Warner, R-Va., whether Clinton's policy would improve combat readiness, five of the chiefs said it would do so by bringing clarity to a confusing and divisive subject. Marine Corps Commandant Carl E. Mundy Jr. dissented only to the extent of saying the new rules would maintain current readiness.

Powell, after rejecting public criticism that the service chiefs were "insubordinate'' in battling Clinton in January, Tuesday sprang to the president's defense when Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., implied that Clinton's views resulted from a lack of military experience.

"It is unfair to single out the president in this regard,'' Powell said. He attributed Clinton's attempt to make homosexuals more welcome in the military to "a conviction'' as well as "a political commitment.''

Nunn's questions about how the new policy will work in practice -- it takes effect Oct. 1 -- centered on whether commanders will be able to initiate investigations, leading to discharge for homosexual "conduct,'' based on a single report that a service member has told a third party that he or she is gay.

At first, Aspin and Powell said this wouldn't be enough "credible information.'' Later, they said the decision was up to the commander's discretion. "That has to be pinned down,'' Nunn said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the entire policy was vague and would spark countless court cases. "What you are doing is beginning a long, long lawyers' relief fund,'' he said.

Warner was skeptical about the "don't tell'' aspects of the policy. "You're asking homosexuals to take an oath of celibacy, mental and physical, for the balance of their terms of active duty,'' he said. "I think that's unrealistic, unfair, discriminatory ... and we're going to be back in this hearing room after the federal courts knock it down in less than a year.''

The Pentagon witnesses cited a memorandum to Clinton from Attorney General Janet Reno, analyzing the directive as defensible in court. Defense Department general counsel Jamie Gorelick is to testify on the point before Nunn's committee Wednesday, while Aspin and the Joint Chiefs are to speak at a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing. The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., also plans to codify a policy on gay service.

Protesting the continued restraints on military service for homosexuals, 70 placard-carrying, chanting members of Gay and Lesbian Veterans of America were arrested for refusing to leave the sidewalk in front of the White House Tuesday.